London's Murky Past Casts Tall Shadows In The Secret River

The Secret River, Olivier at the National Theatre ★★★★☆

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London's Murky Past Casts Tall Shadows In The Secret River The Secret River, Olivier at the National Theatre 4
Photo: Ryan Buchanan

"The task of [writing] an indigenous point of view in what is a white narrative about history is fraught with..sensitivity". So writes Andrew Bovell, in the preface to his stage adaptation of prize-winning novel The Secret River — about a convict seeking his fortune in Australia.

Indeed, there's a tender touch at work in bringing the aboriginal community of Hawkesbury, New South Wales circa 1810 to life, as well as their white settler invaders. It starts off intimate and quiet, as if we're the outsiders here lucky enough to witness original Dharug language songs and children at play. This builds a connection that becomes painful when things take a darker more destructive turn in the second half.

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

The Secret River may tap into a big, yet largely unspoken history of colonial crimes of land grabbing and dispossession, but it's also a great yarn. Petty thief and Londoner William Thornhill (Nathanial Dean), fancies himself as owner of 100 acres of riverside property after winning his freedom. He brings his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) and children along for the challenging ride. Dean's accent wobbles, which is a distraction, but there's a likeable Aussie wit and an energy that makes this a distinctly Australian play. There are laughs when the pianist dodges an imaginary spear and the family brush off the inconvenience of eating a kangaroo, which tastes more like a hairy soup.

The spacious Olivier Theatre might first seem to swallow the small lives it holds, but over time it becomes clear that this is a fitting place for The Secret River. As the dancing tribesmen cast tall shadows on the sweeping curtain behind as they defend their land, it's a reminder that our past looms large, however troublesome.

The Secret River, Olivier at the National Theatre, Upper Ground, Lambeth, SE1 9PX, £15-86. Until 7 September

Last Updated 29 August 2019